Just what the doctor ordered
As those of you who follow the mobile gaming scene know, Nintendo’s recent foray into the medium just dropped in the last couple of days: a reimagining of the old classic, Dr. Mario. Like many my age, I grew up on the NES, and Dr. Mario was an exceptional Tetris-clone – a puzzle game with a Mario aesthetic, similar enough to the venerable puzzle game it drew its likeness from but with a unique twist…and did I mention the Mario aesthetic? We were nuts for Mario back then.
I’ve opened the app a few times, but between real-life drama and a general malaise that’s been hovering over me for the past week or so, I’ve not given it much time to get acquainted. Part of that, though, seems to be the same complaint as most people on the app store have been voicing: it’s boring. An unimaginative Candy Crush clone with a Mario aesthetic…and as much as we love Mario, we’re not still so nuts for him that we’ll eat up anything with his face on it anymore. And whereas the original Dr. Mario changed up the Tetris formula enough in the day to make itself relevant and grab our attention, the game’s new mobile entry doesn’t do enough new to do the same today.
Another reason I’ve not been giving it more of a fair shake is because I recently became absorbed by another puzzle game, one that has been far more worthy of my attention: Starscapes.
This deceptively-simple match-three game has a surprising amount of depth and character hidden beneath its cutesy exterior. The premise, as with most mobile games, is simple: match three or more colored spheres together and defeat all the enemies, called Keplers (possibly named after 16th century astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler?) on the stage. Your task is aided by a team of four-plus-one (the plus one being borrowed from a friend) allies, called Starmates, who use their abilities to help attack the Keplers or otherwise assist in clearing the stages. You’re rated on your performance at the end of each stage, receive your reward, and then do it all again.
Still with me so far?
The appeal of the game is that its depth in no way mars its simplicity. Starscapes is never more than a match-three game, itself a simple premise, but the tools you have at your disposal, your Starmates, change the way you play in minor but still somehow significant ways. Starmate abilities are quite varied, with some that summon piles of a certain colored sphere, some that destroy spheres, some that attack enemies, and even one that simply increases your score count and makes it easier to reach the three-star rating. Your choice of Starmate will change the way you play in subtle ways, and you’re free to adjust your playstyle on the fly depending on what each stage calls for.
Or, if you’re like me, you just pick the bunny and just stick with it through the entire game despite the fact that it’s far from the most useful character.
You’re never punished for sticking with your favorite characters, which I always appreciate, but you’re also rewarded for composing a team of Starmates that works well together, or that has abilities that are helpful for a specific stage.
The game’s combo mechanic is another interesting nuance. Rather than ending as soon as matches stop being made, your combo counter, and subsequently your stage score, will keep going up as long as you continue to play spheres. This means you can, theoretically, keep the combo going indefinitely, up until the point you run out of moves and the stage ends. This can be a good way to continue to rack up points for those much-coveted three-star ratings. However, since your Starmates won’t “refresh” as long as the combo’s still going, and you also earn points at the end of the stage depending on how many moves you had left, there’s an interesting balancing aspect to the game.
Do you keep slamming down spheres to keep the combo going up? Or do you let it drop so you can use your Starmates? I’ve had plenty of stages in which I’ve lost the stage altogether because I was too focused on racking up points and forgot to take out one, last, pesky Kepler. It’s endlessly frustrating, but in the best possible way, and no matter how many times I’ve failed, I’ve never felt like it was because I didn’t have the right characters or because in some way I lacked the necessary skill (or monetary contribution, as can be the case with some puzzle games). I just hunkered down and went right back in again with my cute friends from the stars and a renewed hope that this would be the time.
The best part of the game is that though the Starmate premise makes Starscapes ripe for gacha-style exploitative bullshit, the game’s creators, JoyTap games, has resisted the temptation. You can spend money on the game’s premium currency (diamonds…because it’s always gems for some reason) and use that for a better shot at the rarer Starmates, but not only is it fairly easy to get them through gameplay alone, but it’s also quite easy to rack up a pile of diamonds just by playing the game. And besides that, the rare Starmates aren’t necessarily better, and it’s easy enough to just build a team around the common characters and do just fine with that – in fact, one of the most useful characters I’ve found is Laika, the game’s mascot, a dog Starmate that you get for free right at the beginning of the game.
The game appeals to high-score completionists and collectors alike. The goal of achieving three-star ratings on every stage is very alluring, but there’s also a definite “gotta catch ’em all” vibe with the game’s Starmate cast. Getting three stars on a stage gives you more rewards and more chances to get new Starmates or materials to upgrade them, so there’s an excuse even for casual players just in it for the cute animals to strive for each stage’s high score, if only to have more food to feed their friends and make them cuter.
Starscapes is a triumph because it avoids the traditional pitfalls of mobile gaming. There are gacha elements for players who have money to burn, but its entirely unnecessary to enjoy the game and you get new characters at a fairly decent pace just by playing the game. There’s a stamina system, but it’s fairly easy to recover it for longer play sessions. You can choose to spend a small amount of diamonds for either a health refill or a slightly-larger-but-still-reasonable amount for unlimited stamina for three hours, or you can just accumulate these stamina-refilling items via the end-of-games rewards. I still think the stamina system in Starscapes, as in every game, is a mistake, but it’s at least mitigated in one of the least intrusive ways I’ve seen. Which is good, because I’ve rarely experienced the oft-mentioned “just one more turn” phenomenon that some gamers talk about when playing games like Civilization, but I’ve definitely had some sessions of Starscapes that went on longer than I’d initially intended.
Seriously, I’ve lost sleep over this game. And given how much I like sleep, that’s some of the highest praise I can give a game.
Gameplay: What seems like stock-standard match-three gameplay is improved significantly with the inclusion of a variety of enemies to defeat, characters to collect and show off, and powers to manage. There’s some depth here, but a depth that doesn’t mar the experience. It’s approachable for the casual players, but there’s an appeal for high-score completionists as well.
The bottom-line gameplay is solid, the powers are fairly well-balanced, and the game itself is a lot of fun to play. The balance between frantic play to keep ahead of your combo count and the desire to slow down and approach the stages methodically is masterful.
Presentation: In a word: cute. In two words: super cute. The characters are all appealing for those who like cute character designs, and their “evolution” stages are all interesting enough to encourage you to work pretty hard to improve your favorites.
Sometimes the particle effects on the enemies can get in the way of being able to accurately tap where you want to tap, or can obscure where there’s a match to be made, but in some of these cases it’s actually intentional to add some difficulty to the stages. It can still be a bit frustrating, and though the game is never not appealing to look at, there can sometimes be a lot of stuff going on on your screen.It’s rarely enough to be distracting to a fault, however.
Value: There is absolutely no pressure to spend money on this game as you can get pretty much everything you want out of it without spending a dime. You can spend a bit of cash for a better chance at getting the Starmates you want, or for a stamina refill, but both are given with a fair amount of frequency, albeit randomly, as end-of-stage rewards.
That being said, as I’ve gone deeper and deeper into the stages and my Starmates have required more and more of their individual “medals” to evolve further, I have noticed that the game can be somewhat stingy with these specific character materials, making it almost impossible to push my favorite bunny and sheep duo into their final stages. I get that these final evolutions should be for the most-devoted of players (which I would consider myself being at this point, if we’re being honest), but considering they’re two of the most common characters, I wouldn’t think they’d be the most difficult to improve. At this point, it’s probably a personal frustration and not a flaw in the game itself, but I have only noticed this difficulty in the newest update, which added a lot of personalization to the game (including the ability to decorate your Starmates’ little apartments, which, let’s be honest, is amazing), so it might simply be a balance issue that needs to be tweaked…
…or it could be the game devs realizing they needed to meet some arbitrary bullshit quota because their game wasn’t exploitative enough.
Let’s hope it’s not the latter.
Overall: Overall, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of this game, and I’m not what one would consider a connoisseur of the match-three genre. I find that this sort of game usually boils down to either Tetris or Candy Crush, reskinned with very little added to the formula to make each entry fresh and new. And while Starscapes certainly borrows elements from other games that came before, it does enough new beyond simply its appealing coat of paint that I think it’s well worth the time of newcomers and aficionados of the genre alike.
At the end of the day: If you like match-three games, you owe it to yourself to give Starscapes a try. If you’ve never played a match-three game but like to collect adorable little alien animals, you owe it to yourself to give Starscapes a try. If you have a functioning mobile device made in the last decade with access to an online store that has Starscapes on it, you owe it to yourself to give Starscapes a try.
In short: you owe it to yourself to give Starscapes a try. It’s a shining gem on the dung heap that is the mobile gaming market and it’s well-worth your time.
It’s a good game.